Greening Goods Movement

What comes to mind when you think about rail?  You probably think of those annoying things that block the road when you have somewhere important to get to.  What if I told you rail is one of the greenest methods of moving goods from one location to another?  Tell me more, you say.  Well, let’s examine some of the reasons why.

Freight rail is shipped primarily in what the industry refers to as unit trains.  A unit train consists of 100 rail cars of various types.  Hauling the quantity of goods contained on a single unit train would require approximately 435 semis.  Just on sheer quantity alone, the picture begins to develop.  Start factoring in fuel consumption and rail really begins to pull away.  The American Association of Railroads estimates that the average freight train moves one ton of freight approximately 484 miles on a single gallon of fuel.  Comparatively, the average semi gets roughly six miles per gallon, which equates to moving one ton of freight just over 27 miles on one gallon of fuel when factoring in weight limits.

Shipping via rail also reduces the congestion on our highways as well as cuts down on the wear and tear the pavement faces from the weight of the trucks.  With costs to maintain and replace roadways ever increasing and funds available decreasing or remaining stagnant, it is critical to consider congestion and maintenance into the sustainability of the mode as well.

Certainly trucks play a critical role in the movement of goods and are a necessary part of the process.  Rail line locations are fixed, and direct access is limited.  This means that, for the vast majority of businesses and users, goods must end up on a truck at some point.  Additionally, an improvement in truck fuel efficiency has been mandated, increasing the fuel efficiency to 7.2 miles per gallon for new trucks in the near future – not an equalizer by any means, but a step in the right direction.

Just remember these comparisons the next time that you are stopped at a railroad crossing, and you won’t feel so bad about the couple of minutes spent waiting.  After all, a unit train is approximately 1.2 miles in length; those 435 semis are about 5.75 miles long bumper to bumper.  Think about that wait.

nathan-goldbergNathan Goldberg is currently a Senior Transportation Planner for the Des Moines Area MPO, where he handles freight and congestion management. Previously, Nathan spend six years as a Senior Planner with the City of Las Vegas working in both land use and transportation. Nathan has degrees from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
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